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Harl McDONALD (1899-1955)
The Music - Volume 3 (1943-56)
Violin Concerto (1943) [19:24]
Elegy and Battle Hymn (1942) [12:33]
Symphony No. 3, A Tragic Cycle (1935) [31:53]
Builders of America - Washington and Lincoln (1953) [15:23]
Alexander Hilsberg (violin); George Newton (bass-baritone), Claude Rains (narr) (Builders); Emelina de Vita (soprano); Philadelphia Orchestra Chorus/William R Smith; Musical Art Society of Camden/Henry Smith
Philadelphia Orchestra/Eugene Ormandy (Symphony; Concerto); Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra/Fabien Sevitzky (Elegy and Battle Hymn); Columbia Chamber Orchestra/Harl McDonald (Builders)
rec. studio, 1943-56. mono. ADD

You are not going to invest in this series if you must have the finest contemporary sound. We are talking here of mono and sixty year-old originals though treated to transformational TLC courtesy of Mark Obert-Thorn's technical know-how. Listeners' tolerance would, it seems, have been tested further but for Andrew Rose's pitch stabilisation (for the concerto) and enhanced noise reduction for Builders of America. Mr Obert-Thorn also contributes a factually rewarding single page Producer's Note to go with the usual sustaining in-depth discographical stuff on the back of the case.

We benefit again from Pristine's dogged persistence in the final instalment of this Harl McDonald series which here focuses on works of the two decades from 1935. The series concludes with the present well filled disc. Earlier volumes are referenced here: 1: review; 2: review ~ review.

The compact Violin Concerto is played with missionary fervour by the little known Alexander Hilsberg, concertmaster of the Philadelphia (1935-51). The outer movements are savagely romantic - the supple and emotional language is related to Barber, Glazunov, Korngold and Sibelius. Towards the end of the first movement there is a lengthy cadenza. The violin is recorded closely but not so much as to compromise the appetising orchestral writing. Hilsberg is an exceptional violinist and the metaphorical sparks flying from his bow would have had the members of orchestra ducking left and right. It would be good to hear him in the Elgar if ever he tackled that score. Meantime here is a concerto that is brief in duration but epic in sentiment - the sort of thing you might hope that an aspirant Young Musician of the Year might include as a competition piece. It is very enjoyable despite a couple of no doubt unavoidable audio blips.

Elegy and Battle Hymn is an escapee from the orchestra-only Symphonic Suite My Country At War. This was written in the wake of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. The singing of bass-baritone George Newton is of a text based on an essay by Edward Gilson. It's very much of its time and glowers and then explodes with anger. The message is one of nobility and awful retribution to come. The final Battle Hymn section leans on a super-active march stepping out fully armed and intent on bloody victory. Newton's sanguine singing recalls that of another bass-baritone, Charles Robert Austin in the Naxos CD of Shostakovich's Execution of Stepan Razin. As for McDonald he cannot resist ending with The Battle Hymn of the Republic, one of the finest of national songs to be counted alongside the Marseillaise. What we hear is the premiere conducted by Fabien Sevitsky - nephew of Serge Koussevitsky - with his Indianapolis Symphony. Sevitsky is well worth looking up. He recorded a very convincing Manfred Symphony in 1942 and championed the works William Grant Still including Threnody: In Memory of Jean Sibelius. Strange how there was a proliferation of works written in memory of Stravinsky and Britten but when did I last see a work dedicated to the memory of Sibelius? I am sure someone will tell me - please.

The Symphony No. 3, A Tragic Cycle is big-boned and imposing with the feeling of Verdi's Requiem about it - a smashing operatic piece including vertiginous work for the two solo singers and two choirs. Everyone appears to be on their toes. The words are based on Chinese poems (The Lamentations of Fu Hsuan). They provide the ideas for a piece of galloping grandeur and serious intent that has more in common with the big choral orchestral works of Howard Hanson than music of faux-Chinese delicacy. It is not as frankly patriotic as the Elegy and Hymn. The four separately tracked movements are, according to the composer, focused on the four phases of tragedy. The work ends with applause and the audience is not completely quiet throughout the performance.

The Builders of America - Washington and Lincoln is in the pattern of Copland's A Lincoln Portrait - sincere, hoarse with reflective emotion and almost prayerful in its concentration. If you like the Copland then you will enjoy this although it has a more transparently orchestrated feel but adds a fervent choir. There are notable parts for solo piano and solo flute. Claude Rains has a burred nobility of delivery - artfully understated sincerity. This takes its place alongside other works in the same broad genre (review) and Roy Harris's Tenth Symphony and Robert Russell Bennett's Lincoln Symphony and a similarly-entitled 1941 work by immigrant Jaromir Weinberger. We should not forget the Lincoln-themed works by Paine, Persichetti, Piston, Elwell, Becker, Siegmeister, Damrosch and Grofé.

As for Pristine's access to the precious original sound artefacts, the following take a bow: Peter Bay, David DeBoor Canfield, Frederick P. Fellers, Dr. Karl Miller and Edward Sargent.

The sung or spoken words are not included.
After three enjoyable McDonald CDs of historical recordings one wonders if anyone will be tempted to revive these and other works in fresh studio recordings in stereo. I hope so. The Violin Concerto is clamantly worthy of appraisal. This is a fascinating disc making accessible four eloquent works that help broaden appreciation of the American scene of the last century.

Rob Barnett


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